Shagya Arabs

by Zoe Woods


The foundation stud for the Shagya Arab was created in 1789 at Bábolna in Hungary. József Csekonics, captain of a Cuirassier regiment, had the idea that horse breeding in Hungary would only flourish in professional hands, and, as ordered by Joseph II, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, a stud was created first in Mezőhegyes in 1785. Four years later in Bábolna, a second stud was set up with the primary purpose being to breed fast and strong horses for the use of the army and public. From 1816 onwards, only Arabian horses have been bred in Bábolna, putting the Bábolna Arabian studbook not much younger than the English Thoroughbred’s General Stud Book, established in 1793.

Bábolna originally concentrated on breeding ‘desert Arabs’, and to this day breeds ‘straight Egyptian’ Arabs. They also tried different out-crosses, including unsuccessful experiments with Spanish and Thoroughbred blood, and in search of a taller, more substantial cavalry horse to provide mounts for Hussar Officers, were eventually led to a cross of native Hungarian mares with stallions of pure Desert Arabian blood. These horses were also used as parade horses by European Royalty, and the Imperial Guard of the Hapsburgs were always mounted on Shagya Arabs - every royal officer regarded it as a privilege to be able to ride a Shagya. The toughness, courage, endurance and rideability of these horses was legendary among European horsemen, and the motto of the Hungarian breeders was "Nothing but the best is good enough."

The Shagya Foundation stallion – called Shagya - was born in Syria in 1830 and imported to Bábolna in 1836. He was cream in colour and stood at 15.2½ high. He was bred by the Bani Saher tribe of Bedouins and sold to the Hapsburgs. Stallions descended from Shagya formed the basis of the breed we see today; he was prepotent and appears in almost all Shagya pedigrees. The Shagya is 90% Arabian and typically stands 15hh-16hh high, with a minimum of 7 inches of bone at the cannon. Grey is the most common colour, although there are also bay, chestnut and black Shagyas. Limbs are well-formed and dry. The breed has the elevated elastic paces which characterise the Arabian but is taller and has more bone. The World Arabian Horse Organisation (WAHO) credits the Shagya with great racial purity, partly because of its closed stud book, but also because the Hungarians kept meticulous stud records. Many Shagyas have pedigrees over 20 generations long. Only a few purebred Arabians in Europe can show such long and complete pedigrees.

The state-run stud at Babolna selects and grades young Shagyas at three years of age. It is perhaps surprising to learn that such elegant and high spirited horses make wonderful driving horses. It is the tradition at Bábolna to break fillies to harness first and to saddle a year later. Colts are often schooled for show jumping and eventing. Today's horse is considered obsolete as a war instrument, and instead earns his keep as a sports hors. They have all the qualities necessary to be ideal for dressage, jumping, endurance, and hunting and are also outstanding for carriage driving. During the 1930's, Tibor von Petko-Szandtner, a former director of Bábolna, thrilled audiences across Europe with his five-in-hand team of Shagya carriage horses. Shagyas have also proven themselves successful in open competitions against warmbloods in dressage, jumping, and 3-day eventing. One English visitor was quite excited watching them jump. He said that at 15.2hh and with the ability to jump 1m40 they were ideal for young British Riders leaving pony club classes, who do not want to feel ‘over-horsed’.

My own fascination with the breed was like my involvement with the Cleveland Bay - quite accidental. When I lived in Berkshire, a farmer I knew hunted a lovely middle weight strawberry roan gelding, which I admired very much. When I enquired about its breeding he replied “You won’t believe this. He was bred in France - his dam was a Percheron and his sire an Arabian. They have these tall Arabians in France”. I discovered the tallest Arabian was called a Shagya, and that one of the purposes of the Shagya breed has always been as improvers of other breeds. After failing to find one in the UK, I contacted Katrina Murray at WAHO; she was very helpful and put me in touch with Bábolna. When my husband announced he had to go to Budapest on business, it was too good an opportunity to miss. When his business was completed, we spent a weekend at the stud, which has its own hostel. It was a fantastic weekend. We saw all their stallions, were taken for a two hour carriage ride, hacked out in the forest and were thrilled to walk amongst their herds of 3 year old fillies and geldings. Sadly, we have never been able to return in August, which is when Bábolna is open to the public for demonstrations with these beautiful horses, including the thrilling fivesomes in harness: three leaders and two wheelers driven to hunting carts with their attractive fringed harness, which is traditional in Hungary. I would recommend a stud visit to anyone who has the chance – it is now more than 260 years old, with 260 horses.

During our visit to Bábolna, we were told that a famous British Olympic showjumper had Shagya blood lines. They could not remember the horse’s name but knew he was ridden by a Whitaker. I purchased a book from the stud and when we got home I discovered the horse was none other than Milton! I rang the BSJA in the UK who only knew that Milton’s dam was called Aston Answer, by Any Questions; they knew nothing of the Shagya Arab, and I thought I had reached a dead-end. However, I always seem to trip over things later quite by chance. We bought this farm in France from a couple who bred Anglo Arabs and were both show jumpers. When we explained we planned to breed Shagya Arabs, the wife leapt to her feet exclaiming ‘Aston Answer!’ and went to her bookshelf where she had a book about Milton and a photo of him with his dam. The book we had purchased from Bábolna was correct – this was Milton’s dam line: Aston Answer, by Any Questions, by Questionnaire, by Calion, by Basa.

Some of you may already know the name Basa. In her book The Versatile Arabian Horse, Rosemary Archer stated “The introduction of dressage to the UK was very largely due to the outstanding talent and enthusiasm of Henry Wynmalen….in 1961 he was honoured by the BHS ….and presented with their Gold Medal…. Mr. Wynmalen bought a grey Shagya stallion known as Basa (Shagya XII-3), who was bred in Hungary, and brought to England by a British Army officer, who had to sell him when he was posted overseas….Wynmalen gave superb dressage displays with Basa at the Royal Windsor Horse Shows and on other occasions, and also used him for lectures and demonstrations”.

Shagya stallions appear in the bloodlines of many warmblood breeds. The Shagya mare Jordi was the dam of the great influential Anglo Arab stallion Ramzes, foaled in 1937. Ramzes appears twice in the sire line of Corso, his descendant Rembrandt won the 1988 Olympic Gold Medal for dressage and he is also in the pedigree of multiple medal winner Ratina Z.

When we approached Bábolna, initially to purchase frozen semen for one of our CB mares, the stud manager recommended Paris, who came from the same blood line as Milton’s dam. Sadly the AI was unsuccessful and Paris is now no longer alive, but when we decided to buy two Shagya mares, one was from this same line – Gazal. We like to think that her son, Under Milkwood, our two year old colt, is distantly related to Milton….that is my claim to fame anyway!


The Versatile Arabian Horse by Rosemary Archer

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